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How To Train For A Half Marathon: 8 Expert Tips For First-Timers

During the running boom in the 1970s in the United States, the marathon distance was undoubtedly one of the most popular race distances, but now the 5k is the most popular race distance in the USA, followed closely by the half marathon.

According to the International Institute of Sports Medicine, about 2.1 million people ran a half marathon worldwide in 2018. 

Half marathon training is generally less time-consuming and a little more manageable for runners who are trying to balance a family and/or full-time job with running.

In this guide to how to train for a half marathon, we will discuss tips for half marathon training that extend beyond just the workouts shown on half marathon training plans so that you have the best half marathon race experience possible.

We will look at: 

  • How to Train for a Half Marathon: 8 Tips For First-Time Half Marathoners
  • How Long Does It Take to Train for a Half Marathon?

Let’s get started!

A person running training for a half marathon.

How to Train for a Half Marathon: 8 Tips For First-Time Half Marathoners

Here are our top tips for how to train for a half marathon:

#1: Follow an Appropriate Half Marathon Training Plan

There are hundreds of premium and free half marathon training plans to choose from, but it’s not enough to choose the first half marathon training plan you come across or a half marathon training plan that someone recommended.

You have to choose the best half marathon training plan for your current fitness level, training goals, and needs.

Be realistic with not only your ability level or half marathon time goal but also the number of weeks you have to train and the amount of time you have to train each week to prepare for a half marathon.

Check out our huge library of free half marathon plans here.

People on elliptical machines.

#2: Cross Train

Even if you are a fast runner, running 13.1 miles without stopping is an impressive feat so it requires following a dedicated and disciplined half marathon training plan to build your endurance and strength to run the race, meeting your target goals by race day.

Keeping the overall running mileage on the lower side and supporting your half marathon preparation with cross-training workouts to boost your aerobic fitness is a great way to approach half marathon training while putting less stress on your body.

Cycling, swimming, rowing, elliptical machines, and other forms of cardio exercise can improve your overall fitness, which can indirectly make you a better runner and reduce the risk of injuries

#3: Vary Your Workouts

The best half marathon training plans incorporate different types of running workouts.

Adding variety to your workouts not only prevents boredom but can help make a longer running workout fly by while also challenging different energy systems, muscle fibers, and aspects of your cardiovascular fitness.

People warming up on a track.

Running intervals is one of the best ways to capitalize on the benefits of running when you have a shorter workout time, such as just a 20-minute run.

You can structure the length of the fast bursts and recovery bouts based on your fitness level and training goal. 

Play around with different lengths for your hard intervals.

For example, a 20-minute fartlek run can be a form of high-intensity interval training if you keep the recovery period short enough that your heart rate doesn’t get much below 75% of your maximum heart rate.

It should reach at least 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate during the hard intervals.

An experienced runner might be able to do 30 seconds hard, alternating with 15 seconds easy for a challenging 20-minute HIIT running workout.

To this end, vary the routes that you run and even the terrain to not only prevent boredom but also reduce the repetitive nature of running by altering the stimulus on your musculoskeletal system.

A person running on a dirt path.

#4: Don’t Be Afraid to Run Slowly

Given the technological advancements and lower price points of high-tech GPS running watches, runners can now get just about any workout stat in real-time.

While there are many benefits of training by pace and using a GPS running watch, it is also an equally valid approach to training—and sometimes even preferable—to always (or at least occasionally) ditch your watch and just run by feel.

This can help you really tune in to how your body is feeling and slow down if need be without feeling pressure to hit a certain pace, distance, heart rate, etc., based on whatever your watch shows.

#5: Be Flexible

While you might be following the best half marathon training plan for your needs, we all have times when a niggle pops up, or you really should take a rest day or cross-training day instead of following your half marathon training plan.

A “smart” runner isn’t a runner who follows a half marathon training plan as if it is written in stone, but rather one that uses any half marathon training plan as a good guide in conjunction with listening to their body.

A person doing a back squat.

#6: Strength Train With a Purpose

The importance of strength training for runners has gathered enough scientific evidence and endorsements from runners of all ability levels, making it a much easier “sell“ to get recreational runners to engage in consistent strength training workouts.

For example, studies show that strength training workouts for runners can improve aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and submaximal endurance performance due to the neuromuscular adaptations that result.

While you don’t need to be a serious weightlifter or bodybuilder with your strength training for running, you do want to be purposeful in how you perform your strength training routine.

Runners most commonly fall prey to making two mistakes with resistance training: not lifting heavy enough and not choosing the best strength training exercises for runners.

With the first common mistake that runners make with strength training is that running is already a muscular endurance or catabolic exercise, so you want your strength training workouts to be the converse: heavy weights and fewer reps to help build muscle.

For the best resistance training exercises for runners, focus on unilateral exercises that help correct muscle imbalances caused by running.

When we think about our muscles and the effectiveness of strength training workouts, we often focus on “stronger muscles“ and “weaker muscles.“

Focusing on addressing relative strength deficits with specific resistance training exercises that target the weaker muscles will help correct muscle imbalances and improve overall functional strength.

Foam roll.

#7: Do Active Recovery Workouts

After a long run in your half marathon training plan, or if you nail a tough speed workout on your half marathon training program, you may be inclined to lie down or sit around the rest of the day.

However, think of yourself as an athlete 24/7, not just when you are doing a specific workout on your half marathon training schedule.

Try to walk around, stretch, or use your foam roller later in the day after some of your more extensive runs or workout sessions.

Moving your body is not only great for overall health, but it will increase circulation to your muscles if you are sore from intense training. This can help aid recovery and may reduce muscle soreness.

Two people stretching their hamstrings.

#8: Do The Little Things

There’s a popular saying, “Work hard, play hard,“ but for runners training for a half marathon, we should change this to, “Train hard, recover hard.“

What this means is that all of the supplementary things that you are doing outside of your actual running workout need to take the same level of importance in your mind and with your energy and efforts as your actual workouts.

This includes things like fueling your body with a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, stretching, and doing mobility work. 

Here are some tips to help you get better sleep at night.

Develop a good sleep hygiene routine before bed that involves things like using a blue light filter on your screen devices for 90 minutes before (even using a blue light filter all day long is advisable because blue light can interfere with sleep cycles in general) and avoiding caffeine in the six hours before bedtime.

Optimize your sleep environment by turning down all of the lights and using a white noise machine or sleep soundscape soundtrack to block noise and induce calm.

A person running on the road.

How Long Does It Take to Train for a Half Marathon?

Aside from trying to find the best half marathon training plans, one of the most common questions about half marathon training is: “How long does it take to train for a half marathon?“ 

For complete beginners, we can estimate a range of around 15-16 weeks to train for a half marathon. However, this particular marathon training question is highly dependent on numerous factors.

We have an entire article devoted to the topic where you can calculate the time you will need to prepare. Click here to estimate your half marathon training time!

We hope you love the 13.1-mile distance!

A calendar.
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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